During my undergrad (a decade or so ago now), there was a fairly common expression that I believe was designed to comforting interns who were struggling with classroom management and student engagement.
“No activity will work for every kid.”
It played like, “Hang in there, no one’s perfect. You did the best you could.” Nice enough message, I suppose. However, we need to be careful that a second, much less productive (and potentially harmful) message doesn’t begin to run parallel to it.
“No activity will work for every kid” is just a short morph to “understand that a certain number of disengaged students is just the cost of doing business”. And the latter is an extremely risky mindset. While students are going to struggle to stay fully engaged 100% of the time given our limitations as instructors, that should never stop being the goal. “No activity will work for every kid” might need to get reworded into “Make sure your classroom activities have the POTENTIAL to meaningfully engage EVERY student in class, and don’t stress over factors beyond your control.”
That’s a message that is much trickier to morph because the first portion drives so much.
Every single lesson plan for every single class period should include opportunities for each kid to meaningfully engage. What does that look like?
Well, every struggling learner will be supported every day. Every excelling learner will be challenged every day. Every fidgety kid will get a chance to get up and relocate every day. Every kid will get a chance to practice and get feedback every day. Every kid who needs some worked examples will have ready access to them every day. Every kid will be held accountable for their participation every day. It’s a mindset. Does my lesson have the potential to engage 100% of the learners?
It looks like every question being answered by every kid. It changes from “Any questions?” to “All right, take 3 minutes, solve these two problems and I’ll walk around and look at them.”
One formative assessment attempt is okay with disengaged students. No news is good news, right? The other formative assessment values each student’s thoughts. Okay, yeah… the second one takes a minute or two longer. But then again, the students are much more likely to learn something. That seems like a fair trade to me.
It looks like removing assumptions. “Okay, so back in 4th grade, you were taught area or rectangles, so…” falls away and “Okay, every one draw a 3 in by 5 in rectangle. Use a ruler. Try to make it perfect. Oooh! Look, Alex used graph paper! Nice move! Now, let’s see if we can find the area. No discussion right now. 60 seconds of silent, individual work. What’s the area of that rectangle?”
One sets up a barrier for students who don’t know, don’t remember, or weren’t taught. The other leaves nothing to chance, demands that each student demonstrate their skill set and gives opportunities for reteaching as needed.
It looks like creating expandable experiences. “All right, once you’ve finished 3-13 (odds), you’re done for today” falls away and “Okay, so, if you can get through 3-13, I’ve got the answer sheets floating around. Make sure they’re right and then come and see me. I’ve got a challenge for you. Remember, you knock out 5 challenge problems during the quarter and you get a…”
One generates rush to “get stuff done” with lack-of-productivity being the reward. The other creates incentives for pushing yourself.
And no. These plans aren’t going to work for every student. There. I said it.
But they are ways to make sure that each student will have something meaningful to engage it when they decide to.